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What I'm Teaching My 7-Year-Old Now So She Will Thrive In Corporate America (And Life)

As a corporate trainer and leadership coach, I work with business professionals at all hierarchical levels – helping them develop habits to improve their productivity and effectiveness, identify and minimize their professional vices, and navigate their careers to yield the best results and life satisfaction. Doing this work, I’m constantly amazed by three truly profound realities that continue to surface and remind me of their undeniable truth:

1. Very basic professionalism elements often make the difference between workplace superstars, the mediocre majority, and corporate roadkill.

Indeed, raw basics like coming in early, staying late and outworking everyone around you (with a great attitude) will indeed get you quite far and separate you from the pack quickly. I witnessed the power of this truth as a new, young strategy consultant with a top IT firm. After joining the media, telecom, and utilities practice, I was shocked to find out that two of the practice directors were essentially fighting over which would get to staff me on their media project. Having ZERO media background, I was shocked and asked why they were so interested in me to which my director responded “You’ve developed a reputation of being manically responsive to emails and having a great work ethic. That’s more valuable than media knowledge – that we can teach you.”

2. Most of what’s done in business isn’t rocket science.

With limited exceptions (like specialized technology or research environments), most business functions aren’t that intellectually demanding. Instead, more often than not having core skills like being able to manage a project effectively, being organized and not procrastinating, and being able to foster broad relationships are infinitely more valuable than the finer points of triple integration, Ohm’s law, or Gaussian elimination. For example, the team that wins the NBA Finals from year to year, invariably does so not because they develop some new, sophisticated, innovative basketball skill that others don’t possess, but instead because they execute the same fundamentals that JV coaches teach all around the country, but they execute them flawlessly after thousands of hours of practice.

3. Small changes in habits can make a huge difference in one’s productivity, effectiveness, and ultimately their credibility as well.

The Harvard Business Review article “Habits: Why We Do What We Do” suggests something I’ve heard from many thought leaders – 40-45% of what we do each day, we don’t do out of conscious choice but instead out of habit. So, developing small, results oriented habits can have a tremendous impact on our overall effectiveness.

My second grader recently had her first school project (on guinea pigs). As I started working with her months before the project was due, it hit me like a bolt of lightning – she has no concept of how to approach a project – any project. While having her watch guinea pig YouTube videos was cute, I quickly realized that the real learning opportunity was not doing the project at all but instead using this as a real life example to teach her how to approach any new project. So, the project management trainer nerd in me couldn’t resist, and I immediately gave her a 15-minute tutorial on “how to plan a project.” (Yes, you can imagine how much she loved that!) I wrote on cardstock ― 4 Steps for Working on a School Project. It may sound a little nutty, but we referred to that sheet many times over the next several weeks and she would often extemporaneously ask, “Which step are we working in now?” When she’d be a little lazy and forget about the project for more than a week, I’d remind her of the timeline we talked about and how she didn’t want to wait until the last minute to start practicing her presentation. Amazingly, she responded really well… and I felt I was planting seeds for her developing innate success habits that would carry her into adulthood.

4 Steps for Working on a School Project

Here’s a snapshot of some of the tips I give to adult professionals and the version of that advice I give my 7-year-old.

Although I definitely don’t judge other parenting styles, I certainly would not describe myself as the “Tiger Mom.” (In fact, my husband calls me the “hippie parent.”) While I’m certainly an advocate of strong academics, I’m much more concerned with developing the “whole child.” If I’m being honest, I’d probably rather raise a B- student with well developed extra curricular passions, a broad set of friends, great social skills, deep curiosity, and high self esteem over an A+ student with possible social difficulties, narrow extracurricular interests, and/or a bit of a perfectionistic personality (albeit recognizing that some rare students indeed excel across the board). As I explored in my article “Was Hillary Clinton Too Smart to Get Elected?” I find that quite often later in life those straight A geniuses end up reporting to one of those B- executives with great social skills and broad interests.

Although the article title may read as if my goal is to groom the next corporate executive powerhouse, nothing could be further from the truth. I’m a huge believer in choosing one’s preferred path and not necessarily being herded into what’s often defined as “successful” in American culture. The truth is that the skills I’ve outlined here (and I try to instill in both my kids at every turn) are life skills that will benefit them both personally and professionally whether they choose to pursue a career focused on entrepreneurship, non profit work, traditional corporate experience or being a stay at home parent. If indeed nearly half of what we do is truly done out of habit, is it ever too early to start instilling those positive habits in our kids?

Dana Brownlee is an acclaimed keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and team development consultant. She is President of Professionalism Matters, Inc. a boutique professional development corporate training firm based in Atlanta, GA. She can be reached at Connect with her on Linked In @ and Twitter @DanaBrownlee.